There is an expectation, I suppose, of how Black masculinities show up on the Black male dancing body — a frugal approach to the Black experience and a lazy method for extracting the nuances of the sundry facets of Blackness. These expectations of Black men, particularly tall Black men — that we should shroud our opinions in niceties, appear docile and gentlemanly, be the strong physical presence on stage for others to mount, the one charged with doing the lifting — limit Black possibilities, shackling the bounty of our multiplicities and often soothing white anticipation.
On March 24, Dr. C. Kemal Nance was the featured guest artist in the inaugural Screendance Club, a “radically casual” dance film screening and chat session hosted by See Chicago Dance. A disclaimer: This was my second time seeing the film, the first being at the Collegium for African Diasporic Dance conference, held at Duke University in February 2020. A virtual offering, this viewing party was bookended by informal conversation, allowing participants to discourse with Nance about representation, masculinity and Blackness.
Choreographed and directed by Nance, “Deez Nuts!: Black Bodies Dancing Defiance,” showcases three Black male dancers acting, moving and dialoguing in and with spaces in their home countries: Jamaica, the United States and the United Kingdom. They told stories seeped in geographical, social, cultural and political empowerment, reliving them as if to set their dancing souls free. Stories of fear, fetishization, confidence, conflict, spirituality and sadness surfaced, percolated and lingered. Dancers Danzel Stout, Gavin Hart and Callum Sterling told stories of self-love, bullying and dancing defiance. Those of us who signed in for this Zoom event watched their bold Black bodies collectively disrupt normalcy generated by Eurocentricism.
Initially, I assumed the title “Deez Nuts!” to be straightforward and deliberate — an overly simplistic reference to the physical male body. But the Urban Dictionary explains that deez nuts is not a literal reference to testicles; rather, it is an expression figuratively used to disrupt banter. In stepping back, I understood “Deez Nuts!” to be a type of reclamation — reclaiming of self, reclaiming of identity — as the title gives Black men permission to redefine performances of masculinity. Nance confessed he chose and settled on the title because, vernacularly, when one referred to deez nuts!, they were undeniably referring to the particular physicality of cisgendered men. “It’s crude,” Nance remarked, insisting that no matter how academic the verbiage, once “deez nuts!” was uttered, the words that preceded were diminished.
Some may say the directness of the title borders on vulgar. Nance confessed he kept the title because he wanted to hear people say it. He was firm in his proclamation of wanting to hear people say, “Can we give ‘Deez Nuts!’ some attention?” This, Nance professed, would allow him a private chuckle, maybe even garner consideration from funders, as the title had the potential to splash between studious, conceptual theorizing and Black men jousting – both of which are not mutually exclusive.
Watching the film reminded me of the dichotomies some memories house.
Partly filmed in Jamaica, “Deez Nuts!” conjured memories for me, a Jamaican transplant living in America. The presence and performance of Gavin Hart (the Jamaican dancer in the film), consoled me. While all three men were generous with their stories, Hunt extended nuanced descriptors of how dance and movement resided in his Jamaican body and how Jamaica rejected his artistic expression. He spoke about being told that boys didn’t dance, airing an incident that left him feeling, “like a kid who had just gotten his toy taken away from him.” Nance revealed he wept internally when Hart told the story because of the excitement that resided in Hart when he found dance, even with the risk of his masculinity being questioned. Nance expounded that Hart stopped dancing for a while, but even in this retelling, Hart’s reliving left Nance verklempt. Hart spoke and moved with a sincerity that gave him answers to his own questions. Jamaica was home. And Hart’s story took me back there; to a place I both love and loath.
What Stays In… What Gets Left Out
Looking back to early 1980s African vernacular dance, Nance propositioned that boys were restricted to dancing in a particular way without self-realization and gender agency. Nance divulged that he wanted to do a project comprised of Black men from different parts of the world, but economically, he knew it would be hard to fund. And while he didn’t have the resources for such an undertaking, he thought doing a film would be a less costly endeavor while reaching a broader audience. Nance articulated that, while live performances consume him, films allow him to “stop time” and focus on certain things he would not be able to focus on otherwise. The challenge, he confessed, was deciding what made it in the film and what got omitted.
As I engaged with the film, I realized how performance platforms can be political sites where race, culture and gender are put on display to question or legitimize certain forms of social life. As Black movers, we unreservedly engage with autoethnography to embody types of Blackness that are outside the purview of white gaze. Employing the politics of our lived experiences to move beyond white descriptors of Blackness in performance, “Deez Nuts!: Black Bodies Dancing Defiance” creates an engagement that encourages upsetting that white gaze in order to shift the paradigm towards augmenting Black visibility on stage and screen. Nance disclosed that he saw himself in all three dancers, living through his memories of hearing, “Boys don’t do that.” And because Nance’s research centers the narratives of Black dancing men, particularly those who study and perform African-informed movement practices, three beautiful Black men from different locations physically narrated the multifaceted discourse of Black manhood, dancing to rhythms they created from their stomping feet and their collective memory.
"Screendance Club: a radically casual watch-party, discussion of short dance films" takes place monthly. The next session, on April 28, will be moderated by South African dance writer Thobi Maphanga in conversation with Lorin Sookool about her work, "Prayer Room." To receive information about Screendance Club and other See Chicago Dance initiatives, sign-up for our newsletter. For more information on Dr. C. Kemal Nance's work, visit blackmendance.com.